Monday, 16 July 2012

Off the line

As was widely-trailed in advance, common sense has prevailed on the issue of rail electrification, and the project will now terminate at Swansea rather than Cardiff, and include the Valleys lines.  It’s good news, as far as it goes (pun intended).
Transport expert, Mark Berry, was quoted as saying that “Without electrification [Swansea] would have been perceived as being off the end of the line”.  True, of course.  And, even with electrification, what will be the perception of Llanelli, Carmarthen, and Pembrokeshire?  The statement, surely, is just as applicable.  And the additional danger is that the need to change train at Swansea will increase as the proportion of electric services to Swansea increases, thereby also increasing the perception that we are somewhere beyond the end of the line.
It would have been unreasonable and unrealistic, of course, to expect today’s announcement to have included the electrification of our lines down here in the far west.  It would have been nice, though, to have seen today’s announcement placed in the context of a wider ambition to electrify the whole network, and to see some sort of outline timetable for achieving that.  It isn’t just West Wales that’s left out; the north is largely ignored as well.  And nor are the forgotten or ignored limited to Wales either.
I accept that it would be some years before the work could be carried out, and that there are real opportunities for us to get more, and improved, rolling stock as the hand-me-downs from those areas lucky enough to be electrified are redeployed.  Existing diesel rolling stock has probably got up to 30, maybe 40 years of useful life; so the timescale that I’d like to have seen put on completing the electrification of the network would be one which enabled the government to proclaim that ‘all new rolling stock will be electric’.  That lack of a strategic view of rail investment is one which has dogged the UK for decades, and it’s still lacking today.
I’m still unconvinced by the claim that saving 15-20 minutes off journey times to London will make a huge difference to the economic prospects of Wales.  The benefits of electrification as I see them are more around increased reliability, lower cost, and the environmental benefits (provided that the electricity is generated from ‘clean’ sources).  In that context, the announcement that it will be partly paid for by above inflation fare increases is rather less welcome.  The idea of investment in rail as a way of encouraging a switch from road to rail for environmental reasons still doesn’t seem to have been fully understood.


Nigel Bull said...


Not quite bad news for areas beyond Swansea. They can be easily added on later later, but the new rolling stock will now I presume be 100% electric, not hybred, which is the best part of the news.

Beyond the above, yours is the best piece of many I have read today and which I agree 100% with.

The major problem with the valley lines is the rolling stock which is so old and mounted on rebuilt old freight chassis! This rolling stock does not run on bogeys, but has only two axles. This wears the rails away, makes a terrible noise, has 3rd world ride comfort, poor acceleration, cruising speed and braking(limited by the friction of the smaller number of wheels) New rolling stock alone would be a big improvement, but like you I am not sure if the small time savings are of any real value.

Where we do need more capacity is at peak times on all lines, which means more rolling stock. The real test in all this is if we get it too.

Nigel Bull

Anonymous said...

Good post John, if the Welsh Government was worth anything it would have made electrification to Haverfordwest and opening up the Sea ports its policy rather than stopping at Swansea.

The real economic value is not simply in the 17 mins journey time reduction, its in the having at least part of Wales's transport infrastructure (Rail) up to 21st Century standards.

But on the 17 mins, looked at in the wider context its 34 mins less on a return journey and for regular commuters over a week is 2 1/5 hours less travel, now we have had the announcement its up to the Welsh Government, LA's and Business to make the best of it.

Anonymous said...

I'd prefere to see opening more lines than electification to London.

How about:

1. Tawe Valley line into Swansea
2. Heads of Valleys Line
3. Reopening Brecon to Merthyr
4. Ebbw Vale line to include spur up to Blaina
5. Bangor to Caernarfon

... and of course, Carmarthen to Aberystwyth.

John Dixon said...


Take the point about the cumulative effect of 34 minutes per day, although I don't know how many people actually commute on a daily basis from Swansea to London. There are some, of course, but I'd guess not many. For most users of the service, travelling for only part of the distance, the improved reliability is the important factor.

And I entirely agree that extra rolling stock is key to improving services. If diesel trains from elsewhere are reallocated, that will help in the short term.


Not sure that I'd see extra routes as an alternative to electrification. If electrification makes the roling stck and maintenance cheaper, as expected, than it can also improve the case for re-opening lines.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with A Change of Personnel on one pedantic point- this isn't 21st century standard, its 20th century standard.

I'm relieved this has happened but we are lagging behind and the developments in much of England are generally of a more advanced nature than what we're getting.

Welsh Agenda said...

Transport west of Swansea is not only bad, it is constantly getting worse.

50 years ago you could travel from Swansea to Aberystwyth by train, no longer

15 years ago you could travel from Swansea to Aberystwyth by coach (the Trawscambria), no longer.

Now travelling from Swansea to Aberystwyth (unless you travel via Shrewsbury!) would involve getting the train to Carmarthen then catching the local bus (which I don't believe is direct - you need to change at Aberaeron) which takes several hours.

Cibwr said...

you are right there is a lack of ambition, There should be a long term commitment to the electrification of all the lines, beginning with an extension to the ports - both north and south. In the valleys the greater acceleration will mean faster trips and will enable an increase in the number of services.

But where is the vision?

Anonymous said...

There is a major technological advance in using Electric Multiple Units (EMUs), that you did not mention John, and Nigel just hinted at. It relates to splitting and joining of rolling stock which is a much quicker and flexible. This would be a major advance for the valleys and the vale. Better acceleration torque from electric motors is also better, and the generative braking effectively takes the inertia of train velocity and turns it back into electricity when braking. This is substantially more energy efficient that DMUs. It is a very important 'justification' for electrification.